Posts Tagged ‘Civil Society’

Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists

Friday, April 4th, 2014

For generations, indigenous groups have been battling governments to protect their sacred lands. Danil Mamyev, a Pacific Environment partner and founder of the Uch-Enmek Nature Park in Russia’s Altai region, and Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemum Wintu tribe in northern California, are the key figures in a new documentary by Sacred Lands Film Project. Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists is a moving portrait of Danil’s and Chief Sisk’s struggles to protect their ancestral lands from destruction.



Although they live thousands of miles apart, Danil and Chief Sisk find common cause in their drive to preserve cultural traditions by protecting their ancestral lands. In Altai, Danil founded Uch-Enmek Park as a place where Altaians can practice shamanistic traditions and rituals in an untouched landscape that includes a sacred mountain. In California, Chief Sisk is leading the Winnemum Wintu to defend ritual sites along the McCloud River, in northern California, from inundation by the Shasta Dam.


Danil and Chief Sisk emphasize the important role that land plays in traditional religious and spiritual beliefs. Danil noted that in Russia, offensive behavior in a church can lead to social condemnation and even legal punishment, but no such provisions exist for the protection of places that are holy to the Altaian people. In the film’s most emotional moment, Chief Sisk visits a spring with deep spiritual significance to the Winnemum people. For the first time in historic memory, it has run dry as a result of climate change and poor water management by California’s government. Chief Sisk’s pain is palpable as she digs for water and finds only gravel in the spring’s basin.

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

As I watched the film, I realized how much the preservation of sacred lands will soon become important to everyone. Today, Altaians must contend with tourists who take bus tours to local burial grounds and climb sacred mountains. The Winnemum have watched most of their tribal lands drown under the artificial Shasta Lake. But as climate change alters local landscapes and creates greater demand for scarce resources, we may have to make similar sacrifices, surrendering local lakes to irrigate crops, building homes atop once protected parks, and cutting roads through forests.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

But there are less drastic measures we can take right now. In Altai, local people have begun installing solar and small-scale hydropower generators in remote villages. This saves them the cost of expensive imported diesel and obviates the need for construction of power plants and transmission lines. It’s a win-win for local people. They preserve the land they depend upon for grazing, hunting, and fishing and save money on fuel costs. Just as indigenous peoples recognized the value of protecting sacred natural places long before the invention of national parks, they are now demonstrating the importance of sustainability. Will we listen before it’s too late?

Cleaner Energy for Cleaner Air in China

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Air pollution is strongly linked to premature death in China. According to a study by the World Health Organization, it contributed to some 1.2 million deaths in 2010. The country’s top officials have pledged to declare a war on smog. Yet coal, the main culprit in this tragedy, still rules China’s energy sector.

In March 2014, we invited a group of local environmental organizations to a training that kicks off our new project to address coal pollution in China. The event, co-hosted by Waterkeeper Alliance and Green Hanjiang, was the first in a series of workshops that will help local activists reduce reliance on dirty energy and improve air quality in their communities.

Participants of the Coal Kick-Off Meeting toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

Participants toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

We gathered in Xiangyang, a mid-sized city in western Hubei Province on the banks of the Han River. Like most cities in China, Xiangyang is covered by a grey haze of pollution most days of the year. But unlike in most cities, the river that flows through the heart of Xiangyang is actually safe for fishing and swimming. This is partly due to the event’s co-host Green Hanjiang, which has been working with city residents to stop water pollution for more than 10 years.

Grassroots environmental groups like Green Hanjiang have come a long way. Only 10 years ago, the few local groups that existed mainly focused on education about the environment. Now, hundreds of local groups do hands-on work that cleans up industrial pollution and improves government enforcement of China’s environmental laws.

While Pacific Environment’s partners on the ground in China are excelling at stopping industrial polluters in their cities, few of them are actively challenging pollution caused by the energy sector. As the public’s concern about air pollution in China grows, citizens need to begin to connect the dots between dirty air and coal. Our meeting helped close this information gap and provided participants with hard facts on coal’s harmful impacts on water quality, air quality, and people’s health.

Our workshop also demonstrated how China’s current energy policies support increased expansion in coal mining and processing. And we highlighted the heavy price the country and its people pay for its continued reliance on coal as a major source of energy: rising amounts of dangerous toxins in water and air that harm people, wildlife, and ecosystems.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang. China’s current energy plan calls for increased use of coal energy, which will worsen air quality and increase environmental and health problems.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang.

The harmful impacts of coal are indisputable. But how to decrease China’s reliance on coal is a more complex issue. Groups like NRDC have focused on pushing for a national coal cap, while other groups, including Greenpeace, have sought to mobilize public opinion against coal and work with Beijing policy makers to highlight the natural limitations to coal industry growth—like limitations on water resources needed to process coal in many of the planned coal base regions. Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, meanwhile, is targeting one of the biggest consumers of coal—the cement industry in China—which produces over half of the world’s cement and accounts for some 30% of China’s industrial emissions.

Developing winning strategies at the local level is a key task for Pacific Environment and our partners, and the Xiangyang meeting was a critical first step in this process. Our effort will complement national policy efforts by ensuring that local environmental groups are able to enforce in their communities existing clean air policies and other top-down directives coming from Beijing.

We already fight industrial water pollution very successfully, and together with our partners we can also help reduce air pollution across cities in China and decrease the country’s overall reliance on coal for its energy needs.

Russia Celebrates International Day of Rivers

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

First published on Rivers without Boundaries

On March 14, 2014, at public hearings in the town of Mogocha, located in Zabaikalsky Province in eastern Russia near the border of China, local people endorsed an ambitious plan to develop a nature reserve on 330,000 hectares.

This protected area is being designed to safeguard the upper flow of the Amur River and valleys of its two principal sources: the Shilka River and the Argun River.

This area is the symbolic origin of the Amur – the last great free-flowing river that empties from Eurasia into the Pacific some 3000 kilometers downstream. The Argun (Erguna) and Amur (Heilongjiang) Rivers form the Sino-Russian border for almost 3000 kilometers. The Amur river is an important migration route for fish such as endemic Kaluga Sturgeon (Huso davhuricus) which may reach 4 meter length and weigh more than 1000 kg. This river valley is a globally significant biogeographic corridor that allows exchange between far eastern and Siberian fauna and flora. Locals also use the river valley for recreation, shipping, fishing, and hunting.

The Amur River creates the border between China and Russia and is home to diverse flora and fauna.

The Amur River creates the border between China and Russia and is home to diverse flora and fauna.

Two years ago, Russian En+ Group signed an agreement with China Yangtze Power Co. to develop new hydropower plants, one of which was proposed at the lower Shilka River and that resulted in continued public protests throughout the Amur River Basin for which the Shilka is the primary source. In addition, several years ago, Chinese Xin Ban Guoji Company from Heilongjiang Province began construction of a pulp mill nearby on the Amazar River, which is the large left-bank tributary of the Amur. This presented a grave threat both for the river and for the surrounding forests, because the company rented almost all remaining forests— adding up to 1 million hectares in the Mogocha district of Zabaikalsky Province.

Local people hope that establishment of the new nature reserve will protect the river valleys from logging and pulp-mill impacts and prevent construction of the hydropower dam. Their main message to the Zabaikalsky Provincial Government, which sponsors the development of  this nature reserve and opposes construction of large hydropower plants, is to expand the new protected area as much as possible safeguarding resources crucial for sustainable development and well-being of local people. The nature reserve was planned and designed on the initiative of Mogocha district administration with support from local scientists, provincial government, WWF Amur Branch and Rivers without Boundaries (RwB). When the hearings are over, documentation has to be prepared so that the provincial government can complete the classification process of the protected area.

sharovpetr_Amur4 - Copy

The new nature reserve will protect the Amur River Basin from man-made destruction, including logging, pulp-mill impacts, and the creation of hydropower dams

In addition, 20 Russian environmental groups united by the Rivers without Boundaries Coalition (RwB) signed a petition addressing the Russian government’s questioning of the feasibility of a grand plan to control Amur River floods by building multiple dams on its tributaries (including Shilka River). Such a plan was proposed by President Putin in the wake of a large flood that hit the Amur in summer 2013. However, the real motive behind it is to make use of public money to support development of export-oriented commercial hydropower.

The petition shows that “flood-control hydropower” is a controversial undertaking, which is hardly justifiable on economic and environmental grounds. Even the Russian Ministry of Energy publicly expressed doubts that these dams are feasible unless Chinese investors pay for their construction and guarantee buying generated electricity for a fair price.

RwB and its allies suggest considering an alternative comprehensive plan focused on investment into climate adaptation and modernization of settlements in the Amur river valley, which will guarantee improvements for local people and drastically reduce losses from inevitable future floods. Such measures cost less and could be implemented much faster than dam building.

Environmental groups urge the Russian government to use their recommendations to revise the current approach and make the resulting “anti-flood program” subject to public hearings and strategic environmental assessment.

On the 17th International Day of Action for Rivers, Rivers without Boundaries Coalition (RwB) congratulates friends and colleagues who protect other rivers around the world, and hopes that our efforts will save them from destruction!!!

Law Students Help Chinese Grassroots Activists Challenge Polluters

Friday, March 29th, 2013


At the orientation meeting for Pacific Environment’s new environmental law internship program in China this past weekend, I walked with a group of law students down a broad Qingdao street toward dinner.  “Maybe we’ll come back to Qingdao to start our own environmental group when we graduate,” one of them said, and the rest agreed with enthusiastic laughs.

Pacific Environment’s law interns Li Jianqiang (left) and Liu Hong (right) with Xu Yangmin, a visionary environmental lawyer and dean of Ocean University’s School of Law, our project partner.

Pacific Environment’s law interns Li Jianqiang (left) and Liu Hong (right) with Xu Yangmin, a visionary environmental lawyer and dean of Ocean University’s School of Law, our project partner.

That afternoon, the students met their soon-to-be supervisors at grassroots environmental organizations across China. Not much older than the students themselves, the participating supervisors work hard to protect China’s environment and are partners in Pacific Environment’s ongoing support program. After meeting them, one student said, “They don’t seem jaded like all our classmates who go to work for companies; they still seem young and full of energy.”

Law students in China lack practical experience working with the law; their education emphasizes rigorous training in theory and case law, but schools offer few chances for law students to leave the classroom to work on real live cases. At the same time, grassroots organizations in China increasingly need professional assistance and legal tools to stop polluters, protect pollution victims, and hold polluters accountable.

Groups like the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), which has pioneered efforts in this area, know they can’t do it alone. This is one reason why CLAPV’s charismatic leader Wang Canfa was keen to attend our orientation meeting, and provide moral and technical support for the students and their hosts. “Right now, NGOs in China lack staff with legal knowledge; if law students like these can spend time at Chinese NGOs, it will certainly help them a lot.”

This is me with Wang Canfa, founder and leader of Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, the first organization to provide legal aid to people and communities injured by pollution throughout China.

This is me with Wang Canfa, founder and leader of Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, the first organization to provide legal aid to people and communities injured by pollution throughout China.

The students will face many obstacles in bringing legal tools to water pollution fights. For example, during a presentation by an activist from one of the participating organizations, Blue Dalian, we learned how a group of villagers whose water has been poisoned by illegal gold mining waited several months to have their case heard at a local court, only to eventually find out that the case had been rejected.

Rules about NGO involvement in legal challenges are still being tested, but there are many areas where grassroots NGOs, like Pacific Environment’s partners, can help. Recently, one group, Green Anhui, wrote a legal guide for pollution victims, [link] which they are distributing in their project area. Green Stone has been developing a database on Environmental Impact Assessments in Jiangsu Province, and they will seek help from their Ocean University intern to understand public involvement provisions and corporate responsibility under the law.

A volunteer discussing Green Anhui’s new legal guide for pollution victims with a villager in Anhui Province, China.

A volunteer discussing Green Anhui’s new legal guide for pollution victims with a villager in Anhui Province, China.

After our day-long orientation meeting, we took a day to visit Qingdao’s famed Lao Mountain, a granite outcropping crisscrossed by waterfalls, stairs, and pagodas. As we huffed up one particularly steep set of stairs, an environmental law PhD student who will join Green Stone this spring told me a about his research topic.

“I study environmental behavior,” he told me, “specifically, how and why companies choose to develop corporate social responsibility programs, and what their attitudes are about the environment.” Through the internship, he hopes to be able to conduct interviews with some of the more progressive companies and government officials in Nanjing, while also assisting Green Stone to fine tune their online platform for involving citizens in monitoring pollution and commenting on environmental impact assessments. Meanwhile, the NGO participants are excited to receive an infusion of new legal knowledge and tools.

“We are always feeling understaffed, and most of our staff really lacks professional training. We have to learn as we go,” one participant told me. “That is why it is so important to have programs like this where we can get help from someone with specific legal knowledge; we look forward to hearing new perspectives on problems we haven’t been able to solve ourselves.”

Pacific Environment and Ocean University’s Legal Internship Program is starting the first pilot internships in April 2013. Interns will be providing legal tools and assistance to our partner organizations Green Stone, Blue Dalian, and Green Anhui. Lots of students and groups wanted to participate, and we hope to expand the program next year to satisfy the urgent demand for legal support at grassroots NGOs across China to enable them to help pollution victims and pressure polluters to clean up their act.

RAIPON Reinstated: “A Collective Achievement”

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013


Rodion Sulyandziga was able to breathe a sigh of relief last week when Russia’s Ministry of Justice announced that the country’s leading indigenous organization would be allowed to operate again. For Rodion, an indigenous Udege from the Russian Far East, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, or RAIPON, represents a life’s work fighting for the rights of Russia’s indigenous communities.

Rodion TY for FB

RAIPON’s reinstatement is the result of a four-month struggle against Russia’s legal bureaucracy, in which Pacific Environment, and our supporters, played a key role. “On behalf of RAIPON,” says Rodion, “I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all those who have been with us during these difficult days and months, who have expressed solidarity, who did not keep silent, and who did not turn their backs. Thank you for your involvement and solidarity. This is a collective achievement.”

Within hours of RAIPON’s suspension by Russian authorities in November 2012, Rodion and Pacific Environment strategized outreach to key stakeholders and decision makers. For example, Pacific Environment engaged a broad network of environmental and indigenous rights NGOs for a joint appeal to Senior Arctic Officials, which called on the Russian Government to reinstate RAIPON’s status within Russia so it could continue to fulfill its critical role as a permanent participant of the Arctic Council. We also mobilized over 1,500 of our supporters to write to President Putin and ask him to stop the silencing of indigenous voices in Russia.

Udege Image

RAIPON’s suspension belongs in the broader context of increasing government pressure on civil society organizations. And it was only the latest in a series of governmental measures designed to gain greater control over the vast, fossil fuel-rich territories of the Far North. These areas are mainly populated by indigenous peoples and federal and regional actions are increasingly targeting traditional forms of economic activity like subsistence hunting and fishing to weaken local cultures and traditions and undermine indigenous opposition to the government’s Arctic development plans.

RAIPON is not only the most influential organization defending Russia’s indigenous communities, but also the only organization advocating for indigenous rights at international organizations, including, besides the Arctic Council, the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

RAIPON vocally opposes the government’s grab for fossil fuels in the Far North, which is mainly populated by indigenous peoples.

RAIPON vocally opposes the government’s grab for fossil fuels in the Far North, which is mainly populated by indigenous peoples.

Now that RAIPON is reinstated, Rodion and his team will continue their fight to protect Russia’s indigenous communities from irresponsible and illegal resource development and destructive corporate practices. And at Pacific Environment, we will continue collaborating with one of our most important allies in our battle to protect both the Alaskan and Russian Arctic from resource extraction projects, oil spills, and industrial pollution.

Russian NGOs Challenge “Foreign Agents” Label

Friday, February 8th, 2013


Since late last year, Russian NGOs that receive support from abroad are required to register as “foreign agents” under new legislation aimed at discrediting NGOs by labeling them with a term loaded with negative connotations left over from the Cold War. Russian NGOs, including Pacific Environment’s partners, have largely ignored the vague and contradictory law. Only one Russian NGO has voluntarily obeyed the law, and Russia’s Ministry of Justice has refused to enforce it.

But now a group of Russian NGOs have applied for the European Court of Human Rights to rule on the law, which they allege violates their freedom of association and expression guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. A favorable ruling would increase the already intense international and domestic pressure on Moscow to repeal or soften the law.

What’s really at stake here is not the wording of an absurd law, but the role of civil society in Russia. Despite media reports to the contrary, civil society organizations have increased their stature and influence in Russia over the past decade. Pacific Environment’s partners have racked up an impressive set of victories, including rerouting a pipeline around the famous Lake Baikal, halting illegal logging in a forest preserve, and reducing forest fires in Russia’s southeast.

Our environmental conservation partners join a broader NGO movement that is performing functions vital to a free society, including election monitoring, watchdogging human rights, and aiding migrants. These successes terrify Russia’s ruling elite, which relies on a complacent population to funnel money from the sale of the nation’s oil, gas, timber, and other natural resources into private offshore accounts. The European Court of Human Rights is likely to condemn the “foreign agents” law, but the law’s very existence represents a tacit admission by Russia’s ruling class of the increasing effectiveness of civil society organizations like Pacific Environment’s partners.

Taking the Temperature of U.S.-Russia Relations

Monday, October 29th, 2012


You’ve heard the news: Non-governmental organizations in Russia that receive funding from abroad must now register as “foreign agents.” An American presidential candidate considers Russia to be America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

The Cold War may be over, but U.S.-Russian rivalries are alive and well.

On November 15, I will participate in a livestream discussion hosted by legendary American and Russian journalists Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner who moderated the groundbreaking U.S.-Soviet “Spacebridge” discussions in the mid-1980s.

Watch the English livestream discussion at 10:00-11:30 EST on Thursday, November 15, here:

Watch the Russian livestream discussion at 10:00-11:30 EST on Thursday, November 15, here:

The caption of this PBS promotional piece reads: “American and Soviet citizens participate in a lively exchange of views in A Citizens’ Summit/Dialogue. Talk show host Phil Donahue (left) and Soviet commentator Vladimir Pozner (right) moderate the discussion.”

Connecting audiences in Seattle and what was then Leningrad via satellite, these “Spacebridge” TV summits were an early form of U.S.-Soviet citizen diplomacy utilizing the latest available technology. Now, at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are once again getting chilly, trailblazers Donahue and Pozner are reuniting for a discussion of the current state of U.S.-Russia relations.

Together with other colleagues from Russian and U.S. civil society organizations we will discuss how to maintain and strengthen cooperation between individuals and organizations despite renewed national tensions.

Undoubtedly, Donahue and Pozner will ask hard-hitting questions about the deteriorating prospects for U.S-Russian political cooperation, including Russia’s recent decision to eject USAID, an organization that helped build meaningful connections between the two nations; or the future of the Obama administration’s 2009 “reset” initiative, which sought to overcome old rivalries and improve tense relations with Russia.

My colleagues and I won’t have all the answers, but it will be an interesting discussion because all the guests, me included, are part of the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Partnership Program, an initiative of Eurasia and New Eurasia foundations. The program brings together activists from both nations who address issues like gender equality, corruption, public health, education, and, of course, environmental conservation to tackle shared problems between the United States and Russia.

Fortunately, there is a long history of cooperation between the nations’ people, even in chillier times than this. Since the 1970′s, non-governmental organizations, business associations, and science research institutes have been establishing bilateral connections that are strong today and will likely survive this challenging political climate.

While I’m excited for the talk show, I’m also looking forward to leaving all rhetoric behind afterward, when I’ll be joining my colleagues for two days of intensive work sessions where we will try to come up with actual solutions to the pressing issues faced by ordinary Russians and Americans.

Russians, when confronted with international conflict, like to remind everyone that “we are all people.” And indeed this November, as politicians from both countries are scoring easy political points by carping at each other, the “people” of Russia and the United States will be hard at work solving their countries’ problems.

UNFCCC Chairman Asked Civil Society to Speak, Xiu Min Li Spoke

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Dear Chairman and distinguished delegates from around the world:

As a Chinese American, I’ve seen a lot of bickering between the two countries [U.S, China] in the last week, each claiming that they cannot act unless the other does. Here’s an analogy: a boat is sinking and it has one hour to get to shore. All citizens of all countries are on this one boat. If one country says that they will only raft only if the other countries would commit to rafting, then we will never get to shore.

In this situation, I want to urge all of you to put aside your national interests and negotiate as citizens of the planet. If one country claims that it cannot act unless others do, then it is not serious about addressing climate change. Instead, I urge that every country offer their fair share of responsibility for the planet and ask others to follow their lead.

I believe any action that does not meet the basic requirements of the Kyoto Protocol is a failure for all of us. What we need to aim for is something that is even more STRONG, BINDING, AND AMBITIOUS than even the Kyoto Protocol. A “Balanced Package” means developed countries must accept higher emission reduction targets, offer more financial aid and technology for developing countries, so that they can too mitigate their own emissions and adapt to climate change.

Thank you.